Zika virus can infiltrate the cells that give rise to bone, cartilage and muscles in the head, researchers report September 29 in Cell Host & Microbe.
In utero infection of these cells, called cranial neural crest cells, could improperly mold babies’ facial features, the authors suggest. The findings — so far observed only in cells and minibrains grown in the lab — offer a possible explanation for the misshapen heads that are the hallmark of microcephaly, a condition that afflicts some babies infected with Zika.
Another hitch: The virus made cranial cells unleash a flood of molecules that can alter brain cell development. So in addition to disfiguring the skull, infected cranial cells might also disrupt the brain, the researchers propose.